Photo above: Ela Bhatt responds to a cacophony of cheers as she arrives for a SEWA board meeting at the union’s headquarters in Ahmedebad. Gujarat, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Ela Bhatt is founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), a union which represents the rights of over one million workers. She lives in the west Indian city of Ahmedebad and while I was there to photograph her last month she took me to meet some of SEWA’s members among the vegetable vendors of the city. Thanks to SEWA, these women have secured legal protection for their trade and escaped the exploitation they once suffered at the hands of the police and money lenders.

Bhatt is a small woman with a gentle demeanor so I did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which she would be received as we entered the narrow lanes of Ahmedebad’s walled city. What I witnessed was not the shallow fawning of a deity or the self-aggrandising fanfare that so often greets political leaders. Instead, Bhatt was welcomed by a spontaneous and warm display of appreciation befitting a woman who has spent forty years helping to mobilize and bring justice to a once-marginalised and factious group of workers.

Ela Bhatt founder of SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association of India) and a member of The Elders meets SEWA vegetable vendors in the Danapith area of Ahmedabad's old city. Uniting under the banner of SEWA over 30 years ago, these women no longer have to bribe the police or corporation officials in order to keep their stalls. A court order protects their trade and the SEWA bank has allowed them to escape the exploitation of money lenders. ..Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Gujarat, India.February 25th 2010 Mabel van Oranje, CEO of The Elders on a visit to meet members of SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association of India) who work in the salt pan industry in the village of Halvad...Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Gujarat, India.February 25th 2010 (This Photograph is the copyright of Tom Pietrasik. The photograph may not be reproduced in any form other than for which permiss)Ela Bhatt meets vegetable vendors in the city of Ahmedebad. Thanks to SEWA, such workers have won legal protection for their trade. Ahmedebad. Gujarat, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Bhatt is a member of The Elders, a group of statesmen and social activists brought together by Nelson Mandela to promote peace building and human rights. In acknowledgement of her tireless campaign for worker recognition, establishing cooperatives and setting up credit unions, Bhatt has also received many honours including India’s Padma Bhushan and Japan’s Niwano Peace Prize.

This kind of establishment praise might have softened the stance of a less committed reformer, but it is clear that Bhatt remains an outspoken advocate for the kind of systemic change that is required to bring justice to the poor. Speaking to the UN two years ago, she wondered why the working poor still go hungry,

“We can blame today’s economic environment. It is indeed absurd and out of balance. It does not address simple human needs and rights like food, and water and shelter for all… Employers are constantly searching the globe for cheap labour; but the jobs they create abroad cannot build a society, or a sustainable economy. Special economic zones are nothing but glorified labour-camps that force migration and the break down of families and society. That is not nation building.”

SEWA’s grassroots membership continues to grow, reflecting a swelling of the ranks of India’s informal, or unorganised workforce. These wokers are bypassed by employment legislation because no contract exists between them and their employers.

It is a sad indictment of India’s brand of economic “modernisation” that, according to a 2009 Government report, all recent employment growth (1999-2000 & 2004-05) has occurred in the informal sector which now represents a staggering 92 percent of India’s workforce.

Migrant workers from the Adivasi (ie. NOT Musahar) community carry bricks from the oven to waiting trucks. This kiln is located close to Phulva Patti village in Kushinagar district. Many Musahar people from Maharajganj and Kushinagar districts in Uttar Pradesh find casual employment in local brick kilns. Other low caste and tribal communities, including Adivasis from the state of Jharkhand, work on the brick kilns. Income is based on piece-work. One Rupee is paid for every forty bricks carried from the kiln to waiting trucks. Sixteen Rupees (GB£0.20) is paid for every 100 bricks moulded from the local clay. This moulding work is performed mainly by Musahar men who can expect to earn up to 160 Rupees (GB£2.00) per day. Rates of pay are reduced in the winter. The day begins at 3am and finishes at 12 noon to avoid suffering the debilitating midday sun which dries the clay making it harder to handle. ..The Musahar community are one of India's most impoverished and marginalised groups. They are considered untouchable within the heavily stratified Hindu caste system. Most Musahar people reside in rural districts of Nepal and India's Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar states where they are the victims of ingrained local prejudice and administrative indifference. Literacy levels in the community are as low as 2 percent and child malnutrition is common. The Musahar are poorly represented in both district-level government and the local administration. They suffer from low-self esteem and alcohol abuse is particularly common among men. An ongoing campaign for land-rights has provided an independent source of income for some but most Musahars continue to work as day-wage labourers for high caste land owners. Other campaigns have delivered successes in, for instance, the right to subsidised rations. But many of these victories are isolated and demonstrate the difficulties faced by Musahar people in raising a united voice against their suffering. The dominance of high caste (Tom Pietrasik)Those employed in brick kilns are not protected by employment legislation and form part of the 94 percent of India’s workforce known as the unorganised sector. Uttar Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006